The Other Freestyle: Recovering 80s Latinx Dance Music

I was wandering through a street fair off Canal Street a few years ago when I came across a stand selling bootleg CDs of hip-hop, rock, and many other genres.  The discs were mixes, rather than outright copies of already-released albums.  I had, of course, seen both in Manhattan, having picked up a $6 copy of Beck’s Guero on Varick Street and some amazing, educational anthologies of bossa nova and Americana near St. Mark’s Place in years past.  I did not know what I was in for when I visited this vendor, though.

One CD was labeled Best of Freestyle.  Though I did not recognize the names – Nice N Wild, Sa Fire, Freeze – I assumed they must be old-school rappers of hip-hop’s golden age, unbeknownst to me and possibly little-known by history.  I was happy to pay the $10 for several CDs and be on my way.  When I got home, I was surprised to find an album full of dance beats and diva vocals that in no way resembled what the word “freestyle” brought to mind.  If anything, the disco/techno-y beats and pop choruses suggested something far from spontaneous or improvisational.

Freestyle was, in fact, a subgenre of dance music that enjoyed popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then flickered out apart from a few nostalgic revivals in the years since.  Its influence was confined largely to the Latin music scenes of New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, though a few hits broke through into the mainstream of American popular music.  The genre has received almost no consideration from scholars, with the notable exception of a piece published in Social Text in 2010 by music scholar Alexandra Vazquez, who provides an invaluable perspective on the music’s significance to the social worlds of Latinas growing up in the 1980s.  As Vazquez reveals, the main action with freestyle may have been in Miami, but it meant something to listeners (particularly young women) in “Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, and especially Long Island and the Bay Area.” (113)

To the casual ear, the music screams 1980s.  Yet, unlike other genres of the era, the sound has not been embraced and revived by a new wave of musicians in the 21st century.  Indie rockers have embraced chintzy New Wave synth-pop (Casiokids, the Rapture, the Faint, etc.), while old school hip-hop has certainly had its devotees (Jurassic 5).  Stephen Alex Vasquez’s recent documentary Electro Wars shows how some genres of dance music, such as electro and house, have also been championed and repurposed by a new generation of musicians.  Rather like go-go, another genre that enjoyed intense local popularity (in this case, in DC) but failed to achieve much crossover success, freestyle has been largely passed-over by many rememberers of music history.

Like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” the music’s abundant, unself-conscious pleasure principle evokes nothing so much as a giant, juicy cheeseburger with onions, mustard, pickles and mayonnaise.  Like “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” or “Pride (In the Name of Love),” these songs would go great on a coffee/adderall/coke mixtape, each track bursting with mercurial emotion.  They fill the same sort of space for pseudo-ironic fist-pumping and emoting that “Don’t Stop Believing” has opened for a fresh generation of hipster 80s babies and Glee fans.

Classic freestyle tracks, such as Brenda K. Starr’s “Picking Up the Pieces,” place hard, almost staccato beats in a dance soundscape lavished with synths and repeated melodic choruses; the songs are often marked by an exuberant femininity that vacillates between bubblegum singalong to a melodramatic confession redolent of traditional flamenco songs.  Both male and female vocalists tend to be unabashedly emotional in their singing.  One critic dismissed the style as “synth-heavy bubble-salsa of Lisa Lisa and her big-haired descendants.”  While bubble-salsa sounds potentially delicious, the diss of big-hair either indicates a general rejection of 80s stylistic flourish or a disdain for women performers with extravagant personas.

(Incidentally, Brenda K. Starr was born Brenda Kaplan to a mother who was Puerto Rican and Catholic; her Jewish father played organ in the 1960s one-hit wonder Spiral Starecase.  A missing link between 60s pop, 80s dance music, and 90s indie rock?)

Backing vocals alternate between harmony and tremulous counterpoint; Jon Pareles described “a chirpy, girlish vocal dispensing come-ons or back-offs. Those voices . . . are a little flat, a little raw, and they might have a tinge of a Bronx or Spanish accent; they sound like streetwise city teenagers.” (116)  Many female freestyle vocalists employed the sort of brassy, untutored voice that Madonna used before her singing lessons for Evita, leading critics like Pareles to label them “Clones of Madonna” in a 1987 article.  Admittedly, Corina’s biggest hit, 1991’s “Temptation,” features a sequence that recalls the funky breakdown toward the end of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” released two years earlier, when the Material Girl expanded her sacrilegious power ballad to a sort of ecumenical celebration of multiculturalism and sexuality.

But Corina might have identified more with another female iconoclast.  In a provocative turn, she played the role of Frida Kahlo in Tim Robbins’s 1999 Depression-era epic Cradle Will Rock.  The part is telling, as Corina acted as the fitful genius beholden to an orbital male ago.   As Alexandra Vazquez points out, performers like Nayobe Gomez had to negotiate a music business where they were viewed as sex toys and pawns for producers almost always men – even bedroom moguls like Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, who were depicted treating Gomez as a second-class piece of meat in the 1985 film Krush Groove, a recounting of the early days of Def Jam Records.  Although Simmons and Rubin auditioned Gomez in their NYU dorm, they still held enough cultural, economic, and gender power to decide whether Gomez made it or not.  In the end, despite a degree of mainstream success and a strong following in the freestyle scene, Corina’s impact has not been broadly felt.  She has no write-up on and only a cursory entry in Wikipedia; to add insult to injury, Allmusic gives her one album two stars and no review.

Due to its fleeting success and appeal to a relatively disregarded (and somewhat geographically bounded) constituency of listeners, freestyle is a poster child for music that finds second and third lives in bootleg form.  Vazquez notes that “so many of its recordings circulate in the informal channels of cultural economy (bootlegs, mix tapes, and used-record stores),” not unlike the street vendor I met in New York.  Many artists and genres have been deemed commercially unworthy by the very music industry that first released their work, leaving fans and collectors to piece together the sound of their shared past from copies and fragments.  Even if the music may appeal to thousands across the country, the scattered few who would treasure the music do not amount to enough to justify a place on the shelves of every Target and Best Buy from Gastonia to Des Plaines.  The advent of iTunes and “the long tail” creates a new opportunity for such minority tastes to be bought and sold, but it remains true that artists with small but devoted followings may not be able to  marshal the efforts of lawyers, labels, and accountants to make their music “legitimately” available.  As Vazquez concludes:

The consumption of freestyle by its broader fan base is far from what Will Straw once called the “cultivation of connoisseurship in rock culture.” Freestyle’s aficionado is not one who necessarily owns or thrills in the fetish of the rare record, undiscovered track, or drunkenly signed- over instrument. It is an unapologetically greatest-hits-based fandom, less persnickety about its trivia and systems of knowledge. This greatest-hits culture allows for the recognition of authorship, the retention of those voices that would otherwise be quickly dismissed. In urban music scholar- ship, it is the genre’s producers who are named, remembered, and given work. Freestyle’s fandom, on the other hand, has generated an ex post facto authorship that places the vocalists center stage. (112)